New Lab Helps CIS&T Students Simulate Work at Small Business

The Computer Information Systems and Technology program has completed a new lab to give students a new real-life work opportunity.

Within months of its initial set-up by students in the Advanced Systems Networking Practicum this semester, it will be torn down. That’s by design. Next year – another set of students will build it gain, practicing the skills they would need to set up a complete computer system for a small business.

The lab didn’t look like much to begin with – five empty metal “racks” and a corner full of equipment in boxes. That’s just about what information technology workers would find if they were setting up a server room for a small business or organization, explains Steve Ellison, a technical analyst at Pitt-Bradford who also teaches in the computer program.

“This is a typical set-up for a small organization,” he said. Setting up the system from scratch means students will set up a server room, install software, upgrade software, and create virtual machines to back up data and prevent its loss — just as they would for a small company.

The class allows upperclassmen to integrate the skills they have learned in previous courses, apply them, and research and solve problems along the way.

Justin Martinez, a senior from Miami, Fla., said that during his freshman year, he dreaded networking classes. But during an internship with alumnus Donald Kemick ’04 at Protocol 80, he became interested in networking. Now he’s taking the class to review his skills before heading out into the workforce, but he wishes he had had the opportunity to take the practicum before tackling client servers at Protocol 80.

Other students in the class said that having the chance to work on a complete set-up is also making them feel more confident about their ability to apply to real equipment what they have learned in theory and on simulators.

Even though the lab will be all set up, more students will have the same opportunity next academic year. During the summer, Ellison explained, student workers will disassemble all of the work performed by students this spring so that a new group can tackle the job again next year.

When asked if all of this setting up and tearing down of servers would increase the wear and tear on the machines, Ellison smiled. “A little bit,” he admitted, “but that will add some trouble-shooting opportunities.”

Really, troubleshooting and problem-solving is what these instructors and students seem to love most. Other CIS&T students will be learning through doing in the other half of the new lab as well, where deep work benches will give students more room to work on hardware components than they have in the program’s current multi-tasking lab.

Both parts of the new lab are being made possible by two $1 million gifts to the program in the last year – one from president emeritus Dr. Richard E. McDowell and his wife, Ruth, the other from Zippo Manufacturing Co.

Those gifts are funding a number of initiatives in addition to the new lab. One is a recruiting scholarship just for CIS&T freshman worth $2,500 per year and renewable for four years.

Another is the addition of a third full-time faculty member to lead one of three new areas of concentration – network security and forensics. The other two new concentration areas will be applications software development and networking and systems administration. The concentrations and minors will be available beginning this coming fall.

For students who are not CIS&T majors, the new concentrations will appear on their transcript in a way that emphasizes their work in that area. Students from other majors will be able to combine the work for the concentration with prerequisite courses for a minor, an option that Don Lewicki, associate professor of business management and director of the CIS&T program, thinks will be particularly popular with business management and criminal justice students.

Two sophomores in Ellison’s class, Douglas Elliott of Sinking Spring and Austin Dunn of Clarendon, both plan to add concentrations for both network security and forensics and networking and systems administrations. The two reason that businesses that would be interested in hiring them to set up and maintain a system will also want to keep that data safe.

Having an edge can only stand to help them in a field that is already lucrative for CIS&T grads. Kiplinger’s 2015 “Best Jobs for the Future 2015” predicted 23.3 percent job growth from 2014 through 2024 and a median salary of $80,059 for computer systems analysts; 23.4 percent growth and a median salary of $92,081 for the same time period for applications developers; and 32.7 percent growth and a median salary of $88,587 for information security analysts.

As further evidence that the CIS&T program will only continue to grow, the program’s class of 2015 had full employment within four months of graduation. Already this year, one senior has accepted a full-time position in IT support at Upper Allegheny Health System, and an underclass student has accepted a prestigious summer internship with Google.